Once an Eagle

Area Eagle Scouts say award requires time and commitment, but achievement lasts a lifetime

Bruce Stechmiller, right, clinical associate professor with the Division of Hematology/Oncology at the College of Medicine at the University of Florida, and Christopher R. Cogle, associate professor with the same division, earned Eagle Scout medals.

Erica Brough/Staff Photographer
Published: Sunday, August 12, 2012 at 8:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 12, 2012 at 8:34 p.m.

It's probably the most elite fraternity in the United States: Eagle Scouts.

Since the first Eagle was awarded Aug. 1, 1912, fewer than 2.2 million boys have achieved this highest rank in Boy Scouts. Membership includes astronauts (40 of them), stars of sports and cinema, corporate executives, politicians and judges, even a president; maybe you've heard of Gerald Ford, Mike Rowe, Sam Walton, James Lovell, Steven Spielberg, Bill Bradley, Michael Bloomberg, Neil Armstrong.

And the boy next door as well; it's an honor any teenage boy can earn, though about only 4 percent of all boys who join Scouting actually do. And right now there are about 2.7 million boys in 111,000 Scouting units across the U.S. The national average is about 50,000 a year.

But once he turns 18, that window slams shut — except under special circumstances. Moreover, it's forever: Once an Eagle, always an Eagle.

"It's something to strive for, something to be proud of," says Dr. Bruce Stechmiller, an oncologist at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida. Stechmiller earned Eagle at 15 in 1961 with Troop 84 in Gainesville. It took him four years.

"You have to be able to defer gratification, face a long-term goal," says Stechmiller, 66. "It made me plan ahead." And he's just as proud today as he was 50 years ago when the medal was first pinned on. "After 50 years I still put it on my CV (curriculum vitae) that I have to update every year."

The pride and expectation are evident in nearly every Eagle Scout.

"This will help me throughout my entire life," says Peter Wyckoff of Ocala, who achieved the rank two years ago at age 14. He's especially hoping the words "Eagle Scout" on his application will help gain entry into the Coast Guard Academy after he graduates high school this year.

It should, notes his father, Buddy Wyckoff, the current Levy County Teacher of the Year — and Eagle Scout since 1976. "It opens opportunities for discussion," says the elder Wyckoff. "Men and women look at this and think, ‘Well, he's achieved this, he could achieve so much more.'?"

It shows to the world, adds BSA North Florida Council Executive Jack Sears, that "here is someone who has been trained to be responsible and responsive. It's a signal to others that he's up to the task.

"That's why employers look to them for leadership, because they know they've been trained. And what family wouldn't welcome an Eagle into their family?"

Eagle is not easy to earn; probably why it's held in such esteem. Requirements include at least six months' activity with a troop, holding a leadership position during that time, earning at least 21 merit badges, and developing and leading a project to benefit a church, school or community organization.

Twelve of the merit badges are required, covering such topics as personal health, finance, outdoorsmanship, citizenship, preparedness and dealing with the world and others in it. For the other nine merit badges, there are some 120 specialized areas to choose from ranging from archery to nuclear science, plumbing to robotics. Often, a merit badge will lead a boy into his eventual career, whether he makes Eagle or not.

A fixture only since 1965, it's the project that's most closely associated with the award in public consciousness. Its primary purpose is to hone leadership along with planning and organization skills. There are no set rules, other than the restriction that the project cannot benefit a commercial venture or a Scouting unit.

"I didn't have to do a project," says Dr. Michael Freeman, on Ocala dermatologist. He Eagled in 1959 in North Dakota before the project component of the award was added. Nevertheless, the award still proved an advantage.

Freeman says it helped him into one of 32 spots in the charter class of the University of Arizona's new medical school in 1971; there were more than 500 applications for the 32 slots.

A recognized Scouter in Marion County for years, Freeman says the "harder part of Eagle is the project, the planning, carrying out and developing a project that has a definite end point."

"Since projects were added in 1965," notes Bill McCamy, vice president of programs for the North Florida Council and an Eagle since 1951, "more than 100 million hours of service have been recorded, with 3 million more hours added every year."

A week ago on National Eagle Day, Aug. 1, some 150 Eagle Scouts from throughout the North Florida Council gathered for dinner at Camp Echockotee on Doctors Lake near Orange Park to celebrate the centennial of the first Eagle.

They came from near and far: one from Connecticut; the Eagle bestowed farthest away was in Bangkok, Thailand; one brought his two sons and two grandsons, Eagles all.

The one who Eagled longest ago was Bert Saunders, 88 of St. Augustine. He achieved the rank 70 years ago in California. "Being an Eagle has strengthened my life and my faith," he says.

According to an Eagle census two years ago, of the 50,000 to 100,000 Eagles in Florida, an estimated 10,000-plus live in the 17 counties covered by the North Florida Council. More than half likely received their award elsewhere, though boys in council do their share to up the numbers.

"Over the last 10 years in the North Florida Council, more than 2,400 boys earned the rank," Sears says. "There hasn't been a year we've dipped below 200."

Rob Gwynn, an Eagle since 1977, credits the rank with the best of his life. "Growing up without a father, it taught me to be a man," he says. As an assistant scoutmaster and Eagle mentor with Gainesville Troop 125, he tries to pass along the same knowledge to the boys in his troop.

"Whenever I have an issue in life, I can always revert back to the Scout Oath and Law and Slogan, and the answer is in there somewhere," he says.

His son, Tyler, also is an Eagle, receiving it two years ago at 16. "It's meant a lot of great experiences," says the Santa Fe College student. "It's a great honor, one that I'll have the rest of my life."

Interestingly, the Eagle rank runs in families. Take Willet Boyer, scoutmaster of Troop 113 in Weirsdale, for example. He Eagled in 1955. His sons followed suit: Willet, 1983; Rob, 1984; and Jim, 1991. "I have two grandsons," the elder Boyer says. "I hope I'm around to see them get it, too."

Dr. Christopher Cogle, an associate professor of medicine and a physician-scientist at Shands/UF, earned the Eagle in 1986. His father, John Cogle Jr., earned the award in 1960. And his grandfather, John Cogle Sr., earned it in the 1930s.

"When I earned mine it was exciting, the end of a long process," Dr. Cogle says. "There was a sense of relief and an honor to have come that far. The process exposed me to a breadth of perspectives, and seeing challenges not as roadblocks but as opportunities."

Requirements have changed over the century. Once, there were few required merit badges, no project, no requirement to go through the Star and Life ranks. For a few years in the 1970s, 24 rather than 21 merit badges were needed.

Change happens occasionally, notes Eagle historian, the Rev. Dr. Terry Grove of Altamonte Springs. An Eagle in 1956, when his son Eagled in 1983 he noticed his son's badge was slightly different from his. He began a quest to collect them and chronicle the variations; currently he possesses some 130 varieties.

Nevertheless, "it's all about the skills he learns," Grove says. "The kids of 2012 are learning new skill sets." Any requirement changes, he adds, are "designed to prepare him to live in the world he lives in."

And there could be changes on the horizon. Sears says Scouting is reviewing itself "from stem to stern. They want to make sure the program offered to the youth member is still relevant.

"Does that mean there are going to be changes? I don't know, but it's a full-fledged, healthy review," he adds. "It hasn't been done in 50 years. It's about time."

Rick Allen can be reached at rick.allen@starbanner.com.

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